Motivational Strategies to Support ADHD Learners in the Classroom Essay

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Motivational Strategies to Support Learners in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Classrooms

Motivational strategies in the classroom in general represent a challenging enterprise, but the need for such effective strategies in classrooms with young learners suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is particularly pronounced. The condition affects the ability of students to learn in a number of ways that can detract from the most thoughtful motivational strategies, though, and teachers in crowded classrooms may find themselves as a distinct disadvantage trying to satisfy the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a result. To determine what motivational strategies have proven effective in classrooms with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder learners, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

The prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder varies from source to source, but Wender suggests that, "Probably as many as four million children and four to five million adults in the United States suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)" (2000, p. 3). While the condition has been described in the medical literature for several years, the frequency of the condition has been recognized only in recent years (Wender 2000). As the number of young learners being diagnosed with ADHD continues to increase, the impact on their ability to learn is diminished. In this regard, Wender adds that, "Exact figures are not available, but it seems likely that between 3 to 10% of school-age children and 4 to 5% of adults have ADHD. ADHD is frequently accompanied by learning disorders in reading, spelling, or arithmetic, and it may be accompanied by other behavior disorders" (2000, p. 3). The studies to date have shown that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls, and contrary to previous thinking that the condition was transient, researchers have determined that the condition can persist well into adolescence and event into children's adult lives (Wender 2000; Prosser, Reid, Shute & Atkinson 2002; Reilly 2005; Westmoreland 2010). Moreover, more than half of all of the students diagnosed with ADHD are taught in mainstream classrooms (Zentall, Moon, Hall & Grskovic 2001).

Based on DSM-IV population studies, the diagnosis for ADHD is expected to be between 3% and 5% of the population (Nylund 2000); however, the current rate of diagnosis for ADHD has been far greater than this epidemiological projection and in many classrooms, as many as 50% of the male students are diagnosed with ADHD and are receiving Ritalin as a result (Diller 1998). The DSM-IV symptoms for ADHD are as follows:

1. Often fails to pay attention to details or makes careless mistakes in school work, work or other activities.

2. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities.

3. Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.

4. Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish school work, chores or work duties (not the result of oppositional behavior or of incapacity to understand instructions).

5. Often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.

6. Often avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort (like school or house work).

7. Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (for example, toys, homework, pencils, books, or tools).

8. Is often distracted by extraneous stimuli.

9. Is often forgetful in daily activities (Delfos 2004).

Any classroom teacher can readily testify that all young children exhibit some or all of these tendencies from time to time, but in order to be diagnosed with ADHD, an individual must exhibit at least six of these symptoms on a consistent basis (Delfos 2004; Lensch 2000). Moreover, when children are diagnosed with ADHD and receive medication for the condition as a result, it does little good to second-guess the clinicians and appropriate motivational strategies must be devised (Deutscher & Fewell 2005). Fortunately, a number of such motivational strategies have been developed in recent years in response to this growing need (Sideridis, Mouzaki, Simos & Protopapas 2006; Stronge, Tucker & Hindman 2004; Burcham & Carlson 1999). For example, Willis reports that, "Educators can make all kinds of creative adaptations to fully integrate ADHD student into the class. It is important to keep in mind that techniques that bring enjoyment and positive emotion to the learning activity are not crutches but adaptive facilitators that are appropriate and valuable -- especially for students with attention deficits who have so many pulls on their attention" (2007, p. 93). The motivational strategies outlined in Table 1 below have been shown to be especially effective for these purposes:

Table 1

Motivational strategies for ADHD students



Physical movements

Physical movements are effective in helping focus ADHD students on the learning task at hand and include the following techniques:

1. Class games: "Simon Says" and "Prime Number Buzz" are both viable learning games that involve physical movements; everyone likely knows how to play "Simon Says" but the rules for Prime Number Buzz are equally simple: All students stand and begin naming numbers; if the number is a prime, all students say "buzz"; if not, the student sits down but remains focused on catching errors of the remaining students.

2. "Thumbs up or down": Students hold their thumbs up or down to express their agreement or disagreement with an answer given by the teacher.

3. "Height check": Students are measured in inches by the teacher or a peer and then convert their height into centimeters and write the number on a card; students then line up according to their height, shortest to tallest, as reflected on their card. If someone is out of place, it shows their calculations were wrong and they can recheck their figures.

4. Narrative sequencing: Each member of a small group of students (4 or 5) receives an index card containing a line of text that summarizes an event in a historical timeline or from a story the class has read. Group members read their cards and then sort themselves into the order they believe is correct. The rest of the class votes whether the order is correct or if changes are needed.

5. Students as science models: Students physically demonstrate how electrons move around a nucleus, how the solar system operates, or the echolocation methods used by bats (students designated as "stationary objects" beep aloud to guide blindfolded students from colliding with them.

Surprise and Novelty

These are highly effective techniques that can engage ADHD students because they are "hard-wired" to respond to these stimuli.

Surprise: Teachers can bring unannounced guest speakers in to highlight a lesson or ask a general question that is followed by a surprise question.

Novelty: Some methods that can be used in this area include the teacher wearing a costume appropriate to the lesson (a historical figure, for example, or a wizard's hat for a science experiment).

These methods can also be used in combination.

Source: Willis 2007, pp. 96-97


The research showed that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can adversely affect the learning process in a number of ways and the prevalence of the condition appears to be on the increase. The research also showed, though, that there are a number of motivational strategies available that can fully engage these young learners in the classroom, limited only by the imagination of the teacher. In the final analysis, ADHD students will likely benefit from many of the same types of motivational strategies that are effective with all students: interesting lessons presented in innovative and exciting ways.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders

(4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Burcham, B. & L. Carlson. 1999 'Promising Practices for Serving Students with Attention

Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.' School Administrator, vol. 51,…[continue]

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